A couple of weeks ago, I began to examine the oppressive idea that, “You can’t just do that.” Whatever that is. Then the notes and memories came flooding in about people who can, do, and have just done that.
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The common theme among everyone who I talk to and behind all of my best days is the agency required; that we simply decide when we’re going to do something (or not), that ultimately, by dwelling just long enough on a goal or something that we don’t want to happen, the desire or fear will drive us to act in spite of inertia or headaches or depression or anything else. When readers write to me to share ways that my writing and actions have inspired them, the common theme is that I served as an angel (or is it devil?) on their shoulders who convinced them to do whatever supposedly “crazy” thing they’d wanted to do for a while. When they write to remind me to keep my head up, it’s always from a place of commiseration or appreciation or both.
And when I write back to y’all, either privately or collectively, it’s always a mutual doubling-down, an insistence that I won’t stop and you better not, either. I shudder to think how many good ideas I’ve had that have melted into oblivion because I never sourced the necessary motivation to see them through. There is something in the human spirit that thirsts for this, that is externally energized even though all of our actions come from within. We are endotherms who still need sunshine, self-starters who require mentors, independent thinkers who love to read about and discuss major and minor triumphs and contradictions that define the human experience.
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Sometime in the last month or two, I asked someone what makes them feel most alive. After getting an answer, I had the question thrown back at me, which I was oddly unprepared for. Still, I thought about it and answered, “The moment I first plunge into the water when I jump into a river, lake, or pool.” I think I’ve always felt that way, or at least for as long as I can remember. The uncertainty yielding to invigoration that melts into triumph never gets old, and the human trepidation of jumping in never disappears.
Until everything does.
I spent much of the last year feeling as though I’d had cotton balls shoved into my cranium, my ears, my nose, my mouth, my heart. Every sensory input and emotion was dulled by an unknowable number of factors: brain injury, emotional trauma, chemical imbalance, PTSD, and a vague sense of loss. Sadness, joy, deliciousness, revulsion, religious experiences, fear, laughter, love, hate—and certainly that jumping into water feeling—all felt less powerful and poignant than they used to.
Then, I went for a bike ride on Saturday morning, returned home, and jumped in the pool while a ragtag trio of dogs barked and sprinted and jumped and didn’t-quite-jump in. And the feeling was back. It was joyful and nondescript—but utterly worthy of mention and remembering. So many of life’s great moments happen this way: not with some heaven-sent epiphany, but with a simple moment that yields to an overdue change. It is impossible to explain how good it felt to simply be in the water, splashing and watching dogs be dogs. Without thinking about crunching bones or scraping asphalt, the sound of plastic or the feeling of fleeting irrelevance. Even tiny little moments like a cool pool, warm air, and hot dogs hadn’t felt good in a year or more, so being positively ecstatic doing one of my most favorite and purest things was worth commemorating and sharing.
Count it all Joy
I spent Memorial Day weekend in Fort Worth visiting family and hanging out in the house I grew up in. This included a Sunday visit to the church I grew up attending, with wisdom delivered from the same gentle pastor and comforting accent I heard so many formative, begrudged Sunday mornings. This Sunday, he focused on the way trials fit into sanctification. This truth becomes so lost on most every human who cannot see the sense in what we deem ‘senseless’ tragedies. Lately I’ve been a poster child for senselessness, for wondering where a random wreck and a year of chaos fits into any good or righteous plan. I questioned even my most fun and self-indulgent plans, let alone more structured and mundane ones. Why decisions and conversations I might forget an hour later had a much longer impact on other lives. In lieu of any answer came more numbness and resignation.
The Fort Worth cycling group’s email list that I’ve been a part of for a crazy amount of years mentioned an epic Memorial Day ride. Cycling is far more enjoyable in North Texas, where rural areas are much easier to access and the trails are plentiful and peaceful. And the power of familiar faces is not lost on me; the same wheels I followed nervously a decade prior would be meeting in the same spot as always at 6 AM on Monday. What followed was over a hundred miles of laughs, labored breathing, and absolute agony. The longest ride I’d done since getting hit last June (here we are, in the month that marks the one year anniversary) was a relatively paltry sixty miles, and that only happened once. This was a harebrained, head-first dive into suffering, hot on the heels of joyful pool plunge on Saturday and prodding sermon on Sunday. There were no promises of sanctification.
In some strange way, choosing to do something with no certain outcome but a healthy dose of pain guaranteed was exactly what I needed. Things were going great until our second stop around mile 76. I was hurting but glad to have a Snickers ice cream bar and a chocolate milk. Then everyone hopped back on their bikes just as I was starting to get comfortable and swallow my last bite, and it was back to full-bore hammering our way northeastward before I’d rinsed the chocolate taste out of my mouth.
It hurt. A lot. I began making the type of mental deals with myself that happen as you near wit’s end. Ok, only thirty more miles, which will be about an hour and a half, which means if you just take it thirty minutes at a time, it’s just three super-short bike rides. Then, at mile 80: Twenty more miles is probably plenty. Based on where we are right now, someone can probably meet me at the gate of Holiday Park and give me a ride home. By mile 93: We are so close, but I haven’t felt like this in well over a year. And it’s also probably twelve more miles to the house, which isn’t really that short. That’s, like, a LONG mountain bike ride.
Then, my Garmin hit the 100.0 mark. I truly cannot remember the last time I’ve done that, though I know it’s been since before I was hit by that Altima. When the ride was finished, the ringleader of the Fort Worth clan commented on my ride: “You’re back. Those crashes are a thing of the past. That was a breakthrough ride. Great job.”
I hadn’t processed it that way yet. I was ready for a smoothie, five tacos, and a nap. But I knew he was right. The last quarter of the ride, I kept mentioning how much longer this was than any ride in my even semi-recent memory. But now, that claim no longer applies, at least until I wait a year or more to do another century ride.
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As much as I talk about doing the things we want and ought to do, as much as I believe that the biggest hindrance is almost always our own inhibitions, I still fall into the same trap as most every person who’s ever asked me for advice or encouragement (or just been within earshot of me as I rant about such things). Instead of remarking, I’ve done this before, I kept thinking and repeating, I haven’t gone even close to this far since before I was hit. That line of thinking SUCKS.
Writing this out now, that statement seems obvious and pedantic. And yet, I would imagine everyone reading this knows how much easier it is to give advice than to take it or act on it. I think of the new friend I’d recently met for beers to talk cars and swap stories who texted me after finding and reading my website with the following remark:
My kids (3 and 1) have taught me that we’re all scientists and explorers at the beginning. At some point, we often get complacent or satisfied with things and stop exploring. You strike me as someone who’s searching, and searching is always a good thing.
And I think of the stranger (who I now count as a friend) who follows this site from rural British Columbia, where he’s living his dream life. He called me twice last week after noting that I’d lately failed to write like I usually do. I missed his first call but gladly caught him the second go round. The mere act of calling fueled me for several days, and his specific words and story pushed me towards that swimming pool moment last Saturday. As I head towards Alaska soon, I’ll be making a stop on his island to have coffee and see the result of one dream followed to its logical conclusion. That doesn’t mean I haven’t become complacent many times over even since the wreck snapped me out of my super-complacent stupor.
But it does mean that I’ve done those little mental-math exercises that let me envision things in bite-sized chunks the same way one might at the end of a long drive or bike ride or work day. And I’ve felt the irrepressible joy of jumping in the water then feeling Hank’s paws crashing down on top of me, and I want to do that in as many different places as possible before I hole up in a cozy house somewhere and try to write a book of three.